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Garry Winogrand, Restored to Greatness

The SFMOMA's blockbuster new show, opening this weekend, is a much-deserved reassessment of one of the most important—and misunderstood—photographers of the 20th century.

Metropolitan Opera, New York, circa 1951: This instantly iconic image, exhibited for the first time, was among the many new photographs discovered on Winogrand's contact sheets.

 

New York World's Fair, 1964: "Winogrand was very interested in the inability of photos to tell you the full story," says SFMOMA assistant curator Erin O'Toole. This image, as complex as a Greek frieze, has many of his classic elements (pretty girls, couples, movement, crowds), but is as enigmatic as it is alive.

Point Mugu Naval Air Station, California, circa 1979: This recently uncovered image, taken a few years before Winogrand's death, echoes his New York crowd scenes but replaces the exuberance of that earlier work with a sense of foreboding.

New York, 1969

John F. Kennedy, Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, 1960: This image, found among Winogrand's contact sheets, exudes an optimism about the political process that he rarely displayed in his many other photos of politicians.

Los Angeles Airport, date unknown: In Winogrand's later career, airports and dislocation were a frequent theme.

San Francisco Bay, 1980-83

Los Angeles, circa 1980-83: "This image encapsulates a lot of how the work changed so dramatically in Winograd's later years," O'Toole notes. Much as his earlier photos captured the grit and vitality of midcentury New York, the light and sense of space here "give a real sense of what it's like to be on the street in Los Angeles," she says. "But there's also a sense of isolation and an introspective, almost wistful quality."

Los Angeles, 1983: "There's been a lot of speculation about [Winogrand's] condition and state of mind" when he took the images that conclude the SFMOMA show, O'Toole says. "He was clearly sick and at the end of his life, whether he acknowledged it or not."

When Garry Winogrand died suddenly in 1984, the art world consensus—pushed by his own onetime mentor, the influential John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art—was that the 56-year-old photographer was a has-been whose later work was vastly inferior to the vibrant streetscapes of his early years in New York. SFMOMA’s big new show isn’t just a retrospective—it’s a much-deserved reassessment, including nearly 100 photos never before shown and, in many cases, never seen by the artist himself. The dazzling exhibition reaffirms Winogrand's reputation, once and for all, as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

Winogrand loved to take pictures but not to spend time editing his work, and when he died he left 2,500 rolls of unexposed film and another 4,100 rolls that he had developed but not reviewed—virtually the entirety of his output in the last six years of his life. But even in his heyday in the 1950s and '60s, Winogrand "felt a fundamental discomfort ... in bringing his work to resolution," as one admirer put it. All of which left him vulnerable to misinterpretation. "I think Szarkowski was disappointed in his old friend," says SFMOMA's assistant curator of photography Erin O’Toole, one of the show’s three organizers. "The later work was too negative for him. This was not the Winogrand that he loved."

In mounting the first major Winogrand show in a quarter-century, his friend, guest curator Leo Rubinfien, spent years poring over 22,000 contact sheets archived at the University of Arizona. The narrative that emerged, Rubinfien says, was of a brilliant photographer who saw himself as "a student of America... trying to understand what made this country most itself." Whereas the youthful Winogrand seems energized and inspired by what he sees around him, the later Winogrand is clearly ambivalent about the chaos of the late 1960s and its aftermath. He spent his last decade based in Los Angeles—the ideal place, Rubinfien says, "to see where freedom went when it went too far." As he neared the end of his life, Winogrand’s tone was frequently anxious, even bleak. Nevertheless, “he felt he was at the height of his powers," O'Toole says, adding: "many of the new images we found blew us away.” 

"Garry Winogrand," organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art, runs through June 2 in San Francisco, then travels to Washington, D.C., Paris, and Madrid. For more information, go to sfmoma.org

A version of this appears in the March 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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